Scientific Homophobia

Published: April 19, 2011

The recent debate about gender conformity and sexual identity sparked by last week’s J. Crew advertisement controversy has me thinking a lot about gender stereotypes. Stereotypes can be dangerous. They frequently lead to the type of black-and-white thinking that is so often associated with discrimination. Our own psychiatric field is not immune to this phenomenon; in fact, at times we have even been responsible for perpetuating it.  While our field has done much to educate others about the dangers of stereotyping, we have not always practiced what we preach.  Take, for example, the use of psychological science to perpetuate homophobia.

Morally-Biased Science

Throughout history science has been appropriated to support morality, particularly as it related to sexuality. Often scientific theories have been presented as objective truths, analogous to the laws of physics or evolution.  It is certainly understandable why moralists would wish to use science to support their beliefs.  In our Western world, good science is thought to be irrefutable.  Science often provides a framework for understanding natural and human phenomena without the apparent bias of emotion and subjective experience.  It relies on detached observation, logic, and reason.  Unfortunately, those who practice science have sometimes allowed themselves to be blinded by morality when studying human sexuality (Mohr, 2010). 

American Psychiatry and Homophobia

Given all the evidence to the contrary, why did it take so long for psychiatry to publicly denounce the pathologization of homosexuality?  The answer to this question is rooted in morality, not science.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association made the much belated decision to delete homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  Ironically, this decision was not based on new scientific evidence but the result of political pressure from activists in and out of the Association (Mohr, 2010).

American psychiatry, as with clinical psychology, has suffered from "scientific heterosexism," an idea that rests on the very unscientific assumption that heterosexuality is "normal" and all other form of sexuality – such as homo- and bi-sexuality – are aberrant.  If that were not bad enough, psychiatrists and psychologists have created empirical-supported treatments designed to correct these so-called sexual aberrations.

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